BLOODY TICKS: In one of the most significant studies of sick koalas in Australia, Murdoch University researcher Dr Amanda Barbosa analysed 168 wild koalas being treated in koala hospitals and found parasites such as ticks could be impacting on their health.
BLOODY TICKS: In one of the most significant studies of sick koalas in Australia, Murdoch University researcher Dr Amanda Barbosa analysed 168 wild koalas being treated in koala hospitals and found parasites such as ticks could be impacting on their health. Courtesy: Friends of Koalas, Li

Blood-sucking ticks a new threat to health of koalas

BLOOD-SUCKING ticks have been found by scientists to have a secret role in the health of sick koalas.

Australia's leading koala veterinarians have welcomed the research findings as an important step in understanding multiple disease threats to the popular species.

In one of the most significant studies of sick koalas in Australia, Murdoch University researcher Dr Amanda Barbosa analysed 168 wild koalas being treated in koala hospitals for illness or trauma.

Dr Barbosa studied the ticks and blood samples collected from the koalas and, using a new methodology that allows scientists to simultaneously detect DNA sequences of multiple parasite species, made a surprising discovery.

"For the first time, we were able to identify mixed infections with up to five different species of the parasite called Trypanosoma, within the same koala,” she said.

"This is important because it gives a clearer picture of the diverse nature of parasites that potentially contribute to disease in our koala populations.”

The Northern Rivers is home to many of these animals and recently the Friends of the Koala opened a new centre, the Burribi Education and Administration Centre

Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital veterinary scientist Dr Amanda Gillett said that although chlamydia and koala retrovirus had been identified as the greatest threat to some koala populations, there was still little understanding of other disease threats in the species.

"This latest research has shown that there are likely to be many yet to be identified infections in koalas, and only with further research will we begin to unravel what role they may also play in the decline of the koala,” Dr Gillett said.

In 2006 Dr Gillett first identified Trypanosoma in an ill koala and contacted Murdoch University.

"It is truly fantastic to see how far this research has come and how many different trypanosomes have now been identified since then. Hopefully further research will help us elucidate the clinical role these infections may play in our koalas,” she said.

Clinical Director of Port Macquarie's Koala Hospital Cheyne Flanagan said the research would strengthen efforts to conserve koalas.

"The role of ticks is to suck blood. They are a vector for transmitting disease or parasites so we shouldn't be surprised at this discovery,” she said.

With her research, Dr Barbosa has charted new base-line data that provides new insights into the cause of disease and will help improve the conservation of our national icon.

"In addition to causing anaemia, trypanosomes can suppress the host's immune system and potentially predispose koalas to infections with other pathogens,” she said.

The research, which is published in PLOS ONE, has wider implications because it suggests the methodology can be successfully applied to other animal species and humans.



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